Secret Government Plans to Suppress Civil Uprisings


In December 2008, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the IMF’s managing director, warned about the growing civil unrest resulting from the global economic crisis: "social unrest may happen in many countries, including advanced economies." Unless the crisis was effectively dealt with, especially in terms of popular needs, Strauss-Kahn warned that additional outbreaks of class violence could be expected.

At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, the fear of spreading social violence was a palpable concern. Guy Ryder, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), said the current economic crisis is a ticking time bomb that could lead to increased civil unrest and crime. "We are on the road to serious social instability," he warned, "which could be extremely dangerous in some countries to democracy itself."

Former president Bill Clinton sought to dampen mounting apprehension. "There’s a lot of fear out there in the economy," he cautioned, "but I also believe that this is not the time to pick new fights, either. We have to get out of this together."

Labor unrest in Ireland, France, and Germany combined with the civil uprisings in Greece, Russia, and China—as well as disturbances in Iceland, Latvia, and Bulgaria—all point to what might happen in the U.S. if the crisis deepens.

This theme of economic instability impacting national security was recently raised by Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence. Speaking before a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Blair stated that the global recession could lead to the overthrow of governments, to increases in refugees, and to greater international threats. "Though we do not know its eventual scale," he warned, "it already looms as the most serious global economic and financial crisis in decades."

In a recent report, the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) warned that the military might be used to quell civil unrest, protests, and bank runs. "Widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order and human security," the military preparedness report acknowledged. It also accepted the need for "military force against hostile groups inside the United States."

The SSI report might be dismissed if it was merely an isolated scholarly study instead of another sign of the military’s growing presence in American civil life. As evident by the military’s (as well as other federal police-intelligence agencies) presence at last year’s Republican convention and in New Orleans following Katrina, the military has increasingly expanded the scope of its domestic presence. This change is ostensibly driven by the call for increased "homeland security" following September 11, but reaches deeper into efforts for social control.

The U.S. adopted the Posse Comitatus Act in 1878 to limit the military’s role in domestic affairs in the wake of the North’s policing of the South during Reconstruction. However, in October 2007, George W. Bush in a private ceremony quietly signed the John Warner Defense Authorization Act permitting the president to declare a "public emergency," station troops anywhere in America, and take control of state-based National Guard units without the consent of the governor or local authorities in order to "suppress public disorder."

Even more disturbing, Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL) recently introduced a bill (HR 645) calling for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to establish six national emergency centers for controlling civilians on military bases during national emergencies. This comes in the wake of the DHS awarding a $385 million contract to Houston-based KBR—the former Halliburton subsidiary made notorious for its incompetence in Iraq—to build temporary detention centers on an "as-needed" basis in national emergency situations.

As public apprehension mounts over the deepening economic crisis and incidents of "civil disorder" increase (such as a Chicago workers’ occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors plant in December), it is time for President Obama and Congress to reinstate the full provisions of Posse Comitatus. Unfortunately, Obama’s new head of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, refused to discuss the issue of military intervention during her confirmation hearing.

In November 2008 the SSI issued a report, "Known Unknowns: Unconventional ‘Strategic Shocks’ in Defense Strategy Development." It was prepared by Nathan Freier, a recently retired Army lieutenant colonel who is a professor at the Department of Defense’s (DoD) War College, its main training facility for prospective senior officers. He advises: "To the extent events like [civil disorder] involve organized violence against local, state, and national authorities and exceed the capacity of the former two to restore public order and protect vulnerable populations, DoD would be required to fill the gap.

He adds: "Widespread civil violence inside the United States would force the defense establishment to reorient priorities in extremis to defend basic domestic order…. An American government and defense establishment lulled into complacency by a long-secure domestic order would be forced to rapidly divest some or most external security commitments in order to address rapidly expanding human insecurity at home."

According to the Phoenix Business Journal, which broke the story, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) individually reported that then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson discussed a worst-case scenario in September as he pushed his Wall Street bailout plan, warning that a "scenario might even require a declaration of martial law."

The SSI study follows remarks made in November by an assistant defense secretary for homeland defense, Paul McHale, on DoD plans to deploy 20,000 troops nationwide by 2011 to help state and local officials respond to nuclear attacks, terrorism, and other "emergencies." As reported in the Washington Post, McHale acknowledged that it "would have been extraordinary to the point of unbelievable" before September 11. "There’s a notion that whenever there’s an important problem, that the thing to do is to call in the boys in green," McHale cautioned, "and that’s at odds with our long-standing tradition of being wary of the use of standing armies to keep the peace."

The Post points out that the military plans to establish three rapid-reaction forces. The first, and already available for deployment, is a nearly 5,000-soldier unit consisting of an active-duty combat brigade based at Fort Stewart, Georgia; the other 2 units will integrate nearly 80 National Guard and reserve units and consists of some 6,000 troops to support local and state authorities nationwide.

This development reinforces concerns among civil libertarians and others about the Army Northern Command deployment of a permanent force to deal with issues related to domestic security. NorthCom was established in 2002 as a joint operation to provide command and control for federal homeland defense efforts and coordinate defense support of civil authorities.

According to Gina Cavallaro, writing in the Army Times, as of October 1, 2008, the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, which spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq, will now serve as a "federal response force for natural or manmade emergencies and disasters, including terrorist attacks." According to Cavallaro, it will likely be tasked "to help with civil unrest and crowd control or to deal with potentially horrific scenarios such as massive poisoning and chaos in response to a chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive, or CBRNE, attack." As she points out, the U.S. military was deployed in Mississippi and Louisiana in the wake of Katrina. However, "this new mission marks the first time an active unit has been given a dedicated assignment to NorthCom."

A critical illustration of how a militarized domestic police force might work was suggested at last year’s RNC. As revealed by Wikileaks, the "2008 Republican National Convention, Homeland Security and Emergency Management" plan details how an innumerable number of federal, state and local agencies were integrated into a joint command to monitor, police, and maintain "public order" in St. Paul.

The DHS declared the RNC a National Special Security Event (NSSE) that might attract terrorists, assassins, or other civil disorder. In addition to major political party conventions, other NSSE designations have included the 1999 WHO gathering in Seattle, the 2000 IMF gathering in Washington, Super Bowls, presidential funerals and inaugurations, and even the Academy Awards.

Among the federal agencies involved in the RNC were NorthCom, Secret Service, the FBI, FEMA, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The latter provides mapping tools and imagery intelligence to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which, according to its website, is "staffed by DoD and CIA personnel." State groups included the Minnesota Army National Guard; city agencies included the St. Paul police, fire, and EMS personnel.

The most revealing sign of the effort to achieve complete integration of all relevant parties during a NSSE event is something called the "MACC Seating Chart" ("Metropolitan Area Communications and Coordination"). The plan states: "Communications + Coordination – Not Command." In addition to the relevant federal, state, and local agencies, as well as some unlikely participants (FCC, FDA, and HHS) there are also "seats" available to private firms like AT&T, Verizon, and Xcel Energy. Most revealing, no seats were designated for the Justice Department, the ACLU, or the press.

The RNC, where more than 800 people were arrested and an unreported number were "detained," and the Obama inauguration, attended by an estimated two million, were both NSSE operations and suggest two types of policing actions.

The forces of order learned considerably from the riots of the 1960s and subsequent uprisings. Over the last four decades they have systematically and comprehensively integrated federal control over local civic life. They have done this by expanding the power of the DHS, Justice Department, FBI, and now the Army. Unknown to most Americans, 15 years ago a Defense Department Directive (1994-DODD-3025) allowed military commanders to take domestic actions in emergency situations. (An excellent analysis of the growing militarization of civic life is by Diana Reynolds, "The Rise of the National Security State: FEMA and the NSC,"

Under the proposed HR 645, the secretary of DHS would be required to set up six National Emergency Centers to control civilians on military bases. These centers are intended "to provide temporary housing, medical, and humanitarian assistance to individuals and families dislocated due to an emergency or major disaster." They will also provide for the training and coordination of federal, state, and local first responders; and provide centralized locations for the preparedness, response, and recovery efforts of government, private, not-for-profit entities, and faith-based organizations.

Obama has promised to reconceive Bush’s alleged "war on terror." In the same spirit, he should apply his analysis to the growing federal and military influence on and/or control of local civic (and especially disorderly) life.

The number of people detained and arrested in St. Paul suggests the scope and scale of military-led policing that would likely take place if Obama’s economic recovery plan fails and a genuine wave of civil unrest spreads through the country.


David Rosen is the author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming (Key, 2009).